Schools Should Heed Concerns over Sports' Brain Injuries: As States Make New Laws on Sports-Related Head Injuries, Districts and Schools Must Adapt and Operate New Protocols

By Underwood, Julie | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Schools Should Heed Concerns over Sports' Brain Injuries: As States Make New Laws on Sports-Related Head Injuries, Districts and Schools Must Adapt and Operate New Protocols


Underwood, Julie, Phi Delta Kappan


Sports-caused brain injuries have garnered quite a lot of public attention lately. Have you seen the Will Smith movie Concussion? In 2015, a federal judge approved a class-action settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players regarding chronic traumatic encephalopathy, In Re NFL Players Concussion Injury Litigation, 307 F.R.D. 351 (E.D. Pa. 2015). University of Wisconsin's Chris Borland gave up his $3 million NFL contract with the San Francisco 49ers due to his concern about the potential for concussion brain damage. Reports of concussions caused during professional athletic play are common. But concussions can and do happen elsewhere--in everyday life and in school athletics.

The Sports Concussion Institute defines concussion as:

A complex pathophysiological process that affects the brain, typically induced by trauma to the brain. It can be caused either by a direct blow to the head or an indirect blow to the body.... Symptoms usually reflect a functional disturbance to the brain, and may include physical (e.g. headaches, nausea), cognitive (e.g. difficulty with concentration or memory), emotional (e.g. irritability, sadness), and 'maintenance' (e.g. sleep disturbances, changes in appetite or energy levels) symptoms. A concussion is considered a brain injury. (www.concussiontreatment.com)

Concussions in youth sports are common, and the statistics are a bit surprising. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

* 33% of all sports concussions happen during practice, not competition;

* 46% of all sports concussions occur during high school football;

* 20% of all high school athletes will sustain a concussion during a season; and

* In soccer, the concussion rate for girls is 68% higher than for boys.

The reporting of concussions during high school sporting activity has increased dramatically. According to the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study, in 2005, concussions represented 9.1% of reported injuries; in 2013, they represented 23.1% of the injuries. During this timeframe, many states, schools, and sports leagues created policies and response protocols on concussions in youth and high school sports, which may have increased the number of reports. See the report: http://bit.ly/1VPPbfC

The first law

In 2009, the state of Washington passed the Zackery Lystedt Law, the first law concerning concussions in K-12 schools (2009 Wa. ALS 475). The Lystedt law requires medical clearance of youth athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion before sending them back in the game, practice, or training. The law was named for Zackery, who was permanently disabled after sustaining a head injury while playing football at age 13. He was returned to play 15 minutes after the first injury and sustained a second head injury. As a result of these successive concussions, he was in and out of a coma for three months, with years of disability and treatment ahead.

Shortly after this, Oregon passed Max's Law (OAR 581-022-0421), which requires school districts to implement concussion management guidelines for student athletes. Now all states and the District of Columbia have statutes, usually referred to as return-to-play laws, regarding youth sports concussions. Some states have more protective requirements than others. (See National Conference of State Legislatures, Traumatic Brain Injury Legislation, http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/traumaticbrain-injury-legislation.aspx)

Unfortunately many of these statutes, like the first two, are named after injured children. Most statutes require school districts, state departments of education, local school districts, and/ or the state interscholastic athletic association to develop guidelines and protocols for recognizing sports-related concussions and returning young athletes safely back to sporting activities. Statutory requirements vary but most typically require:

* Educating coaches, parents, and athletes about concussions, symptoms, causes, and effects;

* Removing youth athletes from the playing field immediately when a concussion is suspected;

* Returning an athlete to play or practice only after at least a 24-hour recovery and after receiving permission from a health care professional; and

* Ensuring that parents and the youth athletes have provided clear informed consent to play. …

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